The Dangerous Housewife: Santa Barbara's Margaret Millar

A forgotten genius of noir.

By Kathleen SharpNovember 28, 2013

    WHENEVER A WRITER frets about balancing her work and family, or wonders whether her new book will finally get reviewed like a man’s, or whether it will get reviewed at all, I think of the brilliant novelist Margaret Millar and realize — it’s always been difficult.

    Perhaps you’ve heard of “Maggie” Millar. She’s a literary suspense author who, at the onset of World War II, explored female characters as they battled the daily accretions of frustrated ambition and blocked power, often while trying to keep a grip on their own sanity. Later, in the 1960s, Maggie’s perspective expanded, and she delved into the mores and corruptions of a stratified society that resembles our own today. She dissected the delusions of the Golden State at a time when the rest of the country still believed in the eternal sunshine of the Edenic kind. The people who lived in this paradise, and lived in Millar’s fiction, often reached far beyond their financial or moral means, playing dangerous games that pitted loved ones against each other. Sometimes, these people escaped the law, but they always wound up serving some sort of life sentence.

    Maggie, who spent much of her life in Santa Barbara, ranks among the best fiction writers of the late 20th century. She was a master of character, a genius of plot twists, and a superb stylist. It’s rare to find those three talents in one literary package, yet, over the course of a 55-year-long career, Maggie maintained her high standards throughout her 27 books, short stories, half a dozen screenplays, poems, radio stories, and one touching memoir. Plus, she did it while struggling to raise a child, keep a house, and deal with a husband who later became more famous than she. Perhaps you’ve heard of Ken Millar. He wrote under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald and created the Lew Archer detective series, which paid homage to the hard-boiled detective masters Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, and he eventually joined them in that genre’s pantheon of men.

    Maggie was never included in that group, which annoyed her greatly.

    Margaret Sturm was born in Kitchener, a German-Dutch town in Ontario, Canada. Her father managed a coal mining company at a time of labor strikes and brass knuckles. As a seven-year-old, Maggie would walk to school past a slaughterhouse that roiled with the screams and smells of frightened animals. At eight, she discovered her brothers’ copy of the pulp magazine Black Mask (co-founded by H. L. Mencken), and slipped into a world of smart-mouth villains and vigilante justice. “Some kinds of addiction are considered incurable,” Maggie wrote years later, and whatever moral universe took shape inside the girl was tweaked by her weekly “fix” of horror and bloody gore.

    By the time she entered high school, Maggie was an “it” girl. She wore her brown hair long and loose, and she played piano with a certain abandon. Boys found that attractive, especially one fatherless soul, Ken Millar. He was too shy to approach her, according to Tom Nolan’s scholarly biography Ross Macdonald (1999), yet he felt no compunction about secretly — and creepily — following her home from school most afternoons. In 1933, she won a scholarship to attend the University of Toronto and, for three glorious years, lived on her own, devouring Thucydides in the original Greek and hand-rolling cigarettes in bed.

    Then her mother died, and Maggie started to fail her classes. She left school and moved in with an aunt in London, Ontario, searching for a foothold. In quick succession, she enrolled in a business class, dropped out, fell into an unhappy affair, endured a “mild schizophrenic episode,” and topped it all off with a suicide attempt. By 1937, the stormy 22 year old was writing poems in an attempt to make sense of her world and studying psychiatry as a way to treat her demons.

    Along came Ken. He was studying at the University of Western Ontario when Maggie bumped into him. She was delighted to learn that they shared a love of Freudian theories and Kierkegaardian notions, but Ken was struck with the sense that Maggie was his Fate. The two became fast friends, fellow writers, and within weeks, ardent lovers. When they finally married in June 1938, an Anglican minister prayed that love would “bind up” their wounds. Of course, love alone could do no such thing, and a few days later, the bride was ready to write off their wedding as a kiss-and-run affair. “A woman feels funny when she’s married, especially a very independent type like me,” she explained years later. But something prevented her from leaving altogether, and she followed Ken to graduate school, where he’d obtain a teaching degree.

    Maggie’s “funny feeling” would last for years.

    Here was a smart, well read woman who knew more about the business of mystery and suspense than the mechanics of sperm and egg: two months after her wedding, Maggie found herself pregnant. She considered abortion but was dissuaded. (The experience would resurface a few years later in a gothic novel about abortion, The Iron Gates, though she didn’t use the word.) Throughout her pregnancy, she remained in bed with a “heart ailment” and stockpiled female grievances about dashed dreams and the tricky nature of love. In June 1939, the couple’s baby, Linda, was born, but Maggie remained in bed with the “worst migraine ever.” Twice-a-night feedings will do that to a woman, as will large, unpaid hospital bills.

    To solve part of her problem, Maggie spent weeks typing her husband’s short stories and submitting them to magazines. Fortunately, some Canadian outlets bought a few. That not only eased the young couple’s financial distress, it convinced Maggie to publish her own stories. As her six month old slept, Maggie concocted a harum-scarum tale about a psychiatrist named Dr. Paul Prye and his screwball situations. After writing the book in a feverish 15 days, she submitted it to Doubleday, which promptly bought it for $250 (the equivalent of at least $4,000 today). The New Yorker praised The Invisible Worm, and critics announced that Margaret Millar was a writer “of considerable voltage.”

    Elated, she fell to work on the second book.

    Her early books were a strange blend of comedy and mystery, shot through with an authority unusual for a young woman. Who else would dare to stitch a romantic comedy into a psychotic killer mystery during the somber days of World War II? Her wicked sense of humor helped transfer the tension of her marriage to the suspense in her tales, and her strong emotions allowed her to probe into the psychological shadows. No other mystery writer was plowing such fecund territory, and before long Maggie’s stories were getting serialized in the Toronto Star, and she was supporting her family.

    Ken envied his wife’s natural writing ability and unusual turns of phrase: she described an undertaker performing “unsolicited miracles,” a private eye on a stake-out was “like an astronomer watching the stars.” He became her first reader, her first editor, and erstwhile cheerleader (later, she’d return the favor). Still, the man needed appreciation, the baby needed a bottle, and Maggie didn’t have the patience for either job. Once, during an argument, she threw a raw egg at Ken. When he ducked, it splattered all over the wall. For days, each one stubbornly ignored the yellow gash in the room until, finally, someone (was it him or her?) cleaned it up. Their fights were epic, causing the baby to cry. He was a “jealous idiot,” she was a “shrieking violet”; he had a puppy’s need for praise, she had a rhinoceroid will; he wanted more sex; she slept in a separate room.

    Yet, oddly, the Sturm und Drang of her housebound life was the best thing that could have happened to Maggie. Her work explores the shoals of domestic drama, where anxiety pools around an errant husband and a wife’s slippery grip on a pan of hot grease. In one of her stories, Fire Will Freeze (1944), a group of strangers are stranded on a bus, quarrelling, until they finally hike to a lodge owned by a crazy lady. In Experiment in Springtime (1947), a staid marriage is shaken when the husband comes to believe that his dear wife is trying to kill him. As she wrote in The Fiend (1964): “There is no me anymore […]. I’ve lost my personhood.” The dirty-sink depression was forcing Maggie to slash her way into the uncharted heart and mind of the postwar American woman.

    And readers lapped it up.

    By the late 1940s, she was wowing critics and working on her fifth book while her husband felt “outclassed.” To compensate, he obtained a naval commission and moved to Southern California. Maggie followed as far as Santa Barbara, where she bought a bungalow. She loved how the Spanish-styled town nestled between the mountains and the sea — and how relatively close it was to Hollywood. Warner Brothers had already purchased the option on one of Maggie’s books, The Iron Gates, for $15,000 — nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and other stars considered playing the part of the protagonist who descends into madness. But they turned it down because the character is absent for the last part of the story. Maggie didn’t care. She was a “career gal” now, rewriting scripts, lunching with William Faulkner, and fielding work from other studios. “We did all of her contracts at Paramount,” said her friend Eleanor McKay Van Cott. Alfred Hitchcock later adapted two of Maggie’s novels for his TV anthology series: the Beast in View, starring Joan Hackett, and Rose’s Last Summer, featuring Mary Astor and Boris Karloff.

     And where was Maggie’s six-year-old child during this time? In our era of pink-collar ghettos and literary glass ceilings, when books such as Pushback: How Smart Women Ask — and Stand Up — for What They Want, The Athena Doctrine, and Lean In tell women how to get into the men’s club, controversy still rages over whether women can build rewarding careers and raise well adjusted children. How did Maggie juggle it all? She hired a nanny. The arrangement worked well for mom, but her daughter felt abandoned in Santa Barbara. She played alone on gym rings until her hands bled. She enacted macabre scenes of murder. At one point, she even began to read her mother’s books. Just as Maggie had mined her own psyche for material, she’d exploited Linda’s life, too, and the child must have been hurt to see her private life splayed open in mom’s bestsellers.

    In The Cannibal Heart (1949) a mother lays out her daughter’s clothes, and admires how sweet they look without her Jessie wearing them:

    They conjured up a Jessie without faults, a sleeping child innocent as heaven. It was a shock to come unexpectedly on the real Jessie, looking a little sullen, holding her hands behind her back, her eyes brooding with secrets.

    In The Fiend, a nine year old hungers for affection from her divorced, man-hating, “self-pitying mother.” But the girl soon “realized that the more pet names her mother called her, the more remote from her she actually was. Behind every lamb and angel lurked a black sheep and devil.” In The People Across the Canyon,” a girl is so disappointed in her parents that she invents another set — something Linda actually did.

    By the time Maggie and Ken reunited in Santa Barbara, they were ready to live like a “normal” couple and joined a literary circle. There was Hugh Kenner, a critic of modernist literature; Jack Schaeffer, father of the Western Shane; Bob Easton, author of a minor classic, The Happy Man; Paul Ellerbe, a short story writer for the Saturday Evening Post; William Campbell Gault, whose fiction inspired Robert Mitchum’s classic Thunder Road. Although Maggie was the only skirt in a room full of trousers, she held her own.

    Linda, meanwhile, grew up troubled. Her public school classmates considered her odd, so her parents sent her to a private school. But the rich kids snubbed her. By age 15, Linda was drinking with older boys; when she was 16, dad gave her a new car. The word “teenager” had just been coined but not yet “parenting.” As I think about Maggie and Ken during this time, I wonder — how could such keen observers of human nature not realize what they were doing to their child? In 1956, her problems became heartbreakingly clear. Linda snuck out of the house one rainy night and purchased two bottles of 20-proof port. She drank the bottles alone in a suicidal state. As rain fell, Linda started her car and sped along the slick streets until she hit three pedestrians. The impact was so hard it threw two of the youngsters 70 feet into the air. Linda continued and slammed into an idling Buick, knocking its driver 60 feet away. By the time her car had rolled to a stop, the inebriated girl had killed one 13-year-old boy and seriously injured two other people.

    There was an arrest, followed by weeks of tabloid-style articles. Linda was treated with Thorazine, diagnosed as “schizoid,” and locked away in what the wags called a “looney bin” until she could stand trial for manslaughter. During the long, drawn-out trial, Maggie sat in the courtroom every day, grief stricken and sometimes sobbing. Finally, a verdict was read. “Linda Millar Guilty in Hit, Run Fatality,” the headlines blared. But in a surprise twist that not even Maggie could have written, Linda was given probation instead of being sent to prison. That triggered cries of favoritism, and the Millars left town for a while.

    When they finally returned to Santa Barbara, the novelist’s attention moved from the kitchen table to the larger community. She had always had a clear-eyed view of America’s social classes, but now with the advent of a counterculture, and the rising unrest among the poor and minorities, she began to play more with the contrast between the privileged and deprived. It helped that the author had lived a relatively frugal life in this wealthy enclave, giving her a curbside view of life. But now, her gaze lifted toward Montecito, where the descendants of the Armour meatpacking fortune, the Post cereal clan, and Peabody shirt factories lived on old estates. It wasn’t that Maggie hadn’t noticed these people before; it’s that she began to look outside of herself and her tight circle and more at them. Over lunch at the country club, she’d overhear bits of conversations from the wealthy and bored, tales of wife-swapping, stock-swindling, and emotional blackmail.

    Some of Maggie’s best work was written in this era. Even better was the fact that, after many years, her daughter Linda was released from probation. The young woman eventually married and had a child of her own, giving her parents a rare bit of domestic bliss, although it didn’t last long. On November 4, 1970, the 31-year-old Linda died in her sleep, leaving her parents devastated. Maggie was so torn up she stopped writing for several years. “I have nothing left to say,” she said.

    Ah, but she did. In 1976, Maggie came roaring back, holding her own against storytellers such as Ross Macdonald, Raymond Carver, and even John Updike. Agatha Christie admired Margaret Millar greatly because “she is always different.” Truman Capote begged his editor (they shared the same publisher) to send him her latest as soon as it was available. Pearl Buck, Ngaio Marsh, and Evelyn Waugh made it a point to read Maggie’s work in part because she was always trying something new. Unlike her husband, who kept producing Lew Archer tales throughout his 18 novels, Maggie never stuck with one serial detective. “I think that’s hurt her career,” said Greg Shepard, publisher of Stark House Press, which released two of her books in 2006. And it may explain why so many of her books are out of print. But Maggie differed from her contemporaries in another crucial way. In an era when most mysteries featured strong men, or non-aggressive women like Miss Marple or Nancy Drew, Maggie’s protagonists were smart, difficult, and sometimes threatening. They were women who shared a quietly desperate view of a hard-boiled world.


    Kathleen Sharp is the author of Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire, which AudioGo just re-released as an audio and e-book.

    LARB Contributor

    Kathleen Sharp is an award-winning literary journalist and author of four books. Her latest book is Blood Medicine (Dutton/Penguin 2012), which Oprah Magazine selected as a Top Ten pick and which New Regency is developing into a feature film. Sharp helped turn another one of her books, Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood (Carroll & Graf), into the acclaimed film documentary, The Last Mogul, which was released theatrically by ThinkFilm (2005). A former Hollywood correspondent for the Boston Globe, she’s written for Parade, Playboy, and The New York Times Magazine among many others, and is the recipient of a writing fellowship from USC's Annenberg School of Communications. Sharp has consulted on several film projects, including TCM’s Moguls and Movie Stars, contributed to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and is currently chairwoman of the True Thriller awards committee for the International Thriller Writers.


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